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Barber: Capricorn Concerto

Barber: Capricorn Concerto


654 words
program notes by Chris Myers

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Copyright © 2014 Chris Myers. All rights reserved. Unauthorized distribution or reproduction prohibited.

Capricorn Concerto, op. 21
Samuel Barber (1910-1981)
flute, oboe, trumpet, strings

Composed 1944. First performance: October 8, 1944, Saidenberg Little Symphony, Town Hall, New York. Daniel Saidenberg, conductor.

I. Allegro ma non troppo
II. Allegretto
III. Allegro con brio

When the nation goes to war, even musicians have to do their part, and composers ranging from Ravel and Berg to Messiaen and Vaughan Williams found themselves serving their countries during the First and Second World Wars. In 1942, Samuel Barber received a draft notice from the US Army, and on September 16, he reported for basic training. His military duties initially made it difficult for him to compose—his request to do so in a vacant room during his free time was denied by a superior officer as “dangerous military precedent”—but in August, his proposal to create a symphonic work in honor of fighter pilots came to the attention of General Barton K. Yount, whose wife was a great music lover.

By the end of the month, Private First Class Samuel Barber found himself transferred to the Army Air Corps in Fort Worth, Texas, reporting directly to the General. Yount soon decided that Barber was most valuable to the war effort if he was composing music in the “best working conditions possible”. Barber spent the rest of the war “assigned” to West Point, which allowed him to compose at the new home he purchased in Mount Kisco, New York, with his partner, Gian Carlo Menotti—a house they dubbed “Capricorn” due to the impressive amount of light it received during the winter months. They quickly fell in love with the place, and Capricorn would serve as their home for the next thirty years.

The war years were an adolescent phase in Barber’s musical development. He began exploring new styles, leaving behind the early success of the Adagio for Strings, the two Essays for orchestra, and the Violin Concerto. Between 1942 and 1945, he composed numerous works for the Army (including the wildly popular Commando March), Symphony No. 2 (fulfilling the original proposal approved by Yount), Excursions, his Cello Concerto, and the Capricorn Concerto.

This last piece, named in honor of his new home, stands out from Barber’s other works. While Barber is most often thought of as being a post-romantic composer, Capricorn shows him exploring the music of Bach and the neoclassical style of Stravinsky. This latter influence is a bit surprising, given Barber’s ambivalence toward the composer’s work, but Barber manages to absorb new techniques while still maintaining the lyricism and structural elegance he frequently criticized Stravinsky for lacking.

The Capricorn Concerto is written for the same instrumentation as Bach’s popular Brandenburg Concerto No. 2—flute, oboe, trumpet, and strings—and is a modern concerto grosso in three movements. From the beginning, we encounter a very different Barber from the composer of the Adagio and the Essays. As in the Brandenburg Concerto, the musicians begin by stating the work’s principal theme in unison. The dry unison sonorities and nervous, asymmetrical rhythms in constantly shifting meters are clear Stravinsky neoclassicism, but Barber’s instinctive lyricism is still evident. Once the motivic material has been established, the oboe takes center stage and leads us into a fugue which evolves over the course of the rondo, shifting moods and increasing in urgency until the opening statement returns to end the movement.

In the second movement, the winds trade fragments of a quirky nervous tune over an insistent “basso continuo” line in the viola. The strings interrupt with quiet meditative chords over which the oboe sings a plaintive melody before the opening material returns. The third movement begins with a proud trumpet fanfare that establishes a clear connection with Bach’s concerto. Statements of this theme are interspersed with three exploratory sections, and then a quiet lyrical section calms the mood before one final restatement of the trumpet fanfare brings the work to a cheerful conclusion.

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